One of the most interesting labor disputes in recent history involves a Knight Transportation lawsuit. A white collar contract worker was injured while working for Knight Transportation, an insurance brokerage firm in suburban Seattle. He had been making a fair living as a contract car driver, but on the day of his accident, he suffered a neck injury that left him in a coma for over a year. While never in question as to his safety during his employment, Knight Transportation knew that its commercial vehicles were designed for weight distribution rather than passenger safety. In order to meet its quota of moving heavy loads on short notice, the company required drivers to use oversized tie rods, rather than regular wheels, which meant that the accidents typically involved large groups of people moving together.
In addition, this business was notorious for having their drivers work non-standard hours, and not always picking up their passengers promptly.
When they did pick up their passenger, the drivers did so by driving around in circles, as if trying to confuse everyone. The resulting injuries included broken bones, sprained muscles, nerve damage, and, as is so often the case with employees in such industries, low wages and no benefits. Because this employer was not paying its employees what they are entitled to under the federal government’s minimum wage laws, and because it was aware of the hazard of using tie rods that didn’t meet OSHA guidelines, this man filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Knight Transportation.
Not only did the employee suffer injuries as a result of being improperly transported by Knight Transportation, but his family was similarly devastated. His wife, along with their two small children, were reduced to poverty after losing their job. They ultimately had to give up their home and suffer the expenses associated with having to provide for their young children. This tragic story is reminiscent of many other examples of non-agricultural employees being treated worse than their CNA or truck driver coworkers by employers who violated the federal and state labor laws.
Perhaps the most telling example of what occurs when employers violate federal and state laws regarding minimum wage and piece-rate compensation is the case of Mario Carranza, a plumber from Queens who was wrongfully charged with felony grand theft auto. Mr. Carranza worked for Knight Transportation, a company that is also one of the many employers who violates the minimum wage and piece-rate laws across the country every single day. He was accused of stealing a car on the job because it was delivered late, and it was determined that this charge was technically true. As a result, Mario received a four-month jail sentence, a hefty fine, and was required to pay back nearly all of the money that he stole from the car owner – an amount that was ultimately greater than the car owner owed him. Despite this horrific prison sentence, Mr. Carranza was allowed to continue working at the company where he caused the accident, even though there may have been safety regulations and other limitations in place that would have kept him from performing the job he was hired for.
The Knights had a legitimate contract with Mario Carranza that he was required to follow; however, they violated it through their failure to adhere to the proper piecework requirements.
According to the complaint, the Knights failed to require Mario that he work as much as the state code requires individuals to work in order to receive his full minimum wage and secure the full total wages. This is because under the state code, an employer only needs to pay an employee for actual hours worked, not for time working in a schedule. Thus, Mr. Carranza was owed the full salary and all benefits associated with it, including tips.
Because this occurred despite the requirement that employers pay for actual non-time spent working, the Knights were eventually found liable in the wrongful death suit that was filed against them. In the ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the company had a duty to make sure that its drivers were not subjected to underpaying or non-existent piecework basis wages. The court did not, however, address whether the company could use a different piecework basis wages for non-employees such as guest riders and utility personnel. Currently, there is no federal, state, or local requirement for companies to pay for time spent working.